Book Review: “Monstrous Bodies”

monstrous“Monstrous Bodies,” subtitled “Feminine Power in Young Adult Horror Fiction”, is an academic work by June Pulliam, published by McFarland. When I first saw the cover, I immediately thought of the “Ginger Snaps” movie trilogy, because the first movie, especially, is such a clever take on sexism as well as the pains of adolescence, using lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty. I was therefore happy to see it listed as one of the sources for “Monstrous Bodies”, even though it’s not a novel.

The book analyzes six novels about ghosts; two novels, a short story and two films about werewolves; and six novels and one film about witches – the latter being another cult favorite “The Craft”. June Pulliam’s thesis is that young adult horror can be an effective tool for exposing and resisting the restricted roles that women continue to be assigned in our patriarchal society. If the female monster is a metaphor for the female who will not confirm to stereotypical femininity, then despite adult horror fiction’s tendency to reaffirm sexist stereotypes, young adult (YA) horror perhaps makes monsters “a girl’s best friend”.

Pulliam makes an awesome rebuttal to the backlash against feminism that some modern girls have taken up: “Molly’s ignorance…is part of a post-feminist mindset which erroneously believes that all of the goals of second-wave feminism are irrelevant to the lives of contemporary young women.… Girls are often reluctant to identify themselves as feminists, who are still characterized as rabid man haters… Nevertheless, young women who do not identify as feminists support feminist ideals of equality between the sexes and freedom of choice.” (I’m looking at you, Shailene Woodley, and everyone at that disturbing I-don’t-need-feminism Tumblr.)

The author also makes a valid point in her ghost chapter when she claims, “the ghost reveals that conformity can be a life and death struggle”, because the female ghosts she references all came to their end while attempting to escape patriarchal authority (forced marriages, no choice in careers, etc). Also, in the novel “Jade Green” by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, she mentions that the cover-up of the title character’s near-rape and murder is “part of a wider culture in which sexual violence against women frequently goes unpunished because its threat ratifies the interests of patriarchy”. This certainly resonates today with the concept of “rape culture”, and the Steubenville case, among others.

While many of Pulliam’s points are excellent, there are several contradictions or stretches scattered here and there. In her section on ghosts, for example, Pulliam states that YA ghost stories differ from adult ghost stories in that the protagonists are protected by the ghosts from a representative of the patriarchal society (usually a family member) that wants to subdue them. Although this fits most of her examples – and relates to a movie I recently watched called “Haunter” – I find it unlikely to be true across the board. Surely there are YA ghost stories in which the ghost is the villain? It’s also a bit contradictory when, in the case of her example novel “Dreadful Sorry” by Kathryn Reiss, Pulliam admits that the ghost Clementine does not actually save the protagonist Molly from a family patriarch, but only “helps her to appreciate the freedoms and class privilege she has taken for granted”.

Another stretched example is the use of a haunted protagonist as a monstrous female in the first place. Shouldn’t the ghosts be the monsters instead of the haunted girls? The ghosts in her examples do all happen to be teen girls themselves, apart from in “A Stir of Bones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, but Pulliam uses both the ghosts and the haunted girls to prove her thesis, which sometimes gets muddled. This decision also conflicts with her justification for not including the ubiquitous YA vampire genre, which is because the protagonists usually are not the vampires themselves. She adds that those protagonists are not influenced enough by the vampire characters to become “monstrous” (non-conforming), but in both the “Twilight” and “Vampire Diaries” series, for example, the main girls do become vampires. So if the idea is that the characters become literal monsters but not liberated females, then this kills the metaphor!

I suppose you can argue that those books are paranormal romance instead of horror, but Pulliam explains later that two of her werewolf story examples are technically paranormal romance.

In the chapter on werewolves, Pulliam discusses the Beauty Myth– a phrase she borrows from Naomi Wolf – which points out both the fact that women can never fully meet the impossible standards of conventional beauty, and that those standards are used to control women. The latter refers to the fact that unconventional looks in a woman could cause rejection not just by men, but also by employers and even female friends. The beauty standard is very convincingly described as a never-ending “body project” that actually keeps women distracted and occupied, and “less likely to notice, let alone challenge, cultural forces that perpetuate their subordination.” It also creates competition and “girlfighting” among women, denying them the resistance power of sisterhood. Amen.

Pulliam calls the female werewolf “an iteration of patriarchal fears about the ‘nature’ of woman as a dangerous, sexually insatiable beast governed by her hormones, a characterization that justifies her subordination”. I never associated werewolves with sexuality before watching the “Ginger Snaps” trilogy, but it certainly applies: the morbid, antisocial sisters Ginger and Bridget become werewolves and as Ginger changes in the first film, she loses all self control and becomes super aggressive sexually, equating desire with the need to rip things to shreds. In the metaphor of the movie, this is an exaggeration of puberty, because it coincides with Ginger’s first period, but Pulliam is right in that Ginger’s new aggression makes at least one boy uncomfortable: while fooling around in a car, he says, “Who’s the guy here?”, meaning he’s the one who should be initiating things. There are also several good lines about the differences between the way people talk about boys and girls, especially regarding sex.

In the second film example, “Blood Moon”, the protagonist Tara has hypertrichosis, a condition which causes the body to become covered in hair, so she portrays a “Wolf Girl” in a circus freak show. She is taunted and feared for her appearance, and jumps at the chance to become traditionally beautiful by taking an experimental drug, but the price is, ironically, her humanity. She goes from a kind-hearted person who looks like a monster to a beautiful woman who acts like a monster, killing her tormentors and others. This is obviously a story that could apply to a man, but it is more potent in the case of a female character, because of the much harsher beauty expectations women face. Also, Pulliam points out that the fact that Tara loses her speech as well, fits into the idea of the perfect woman as beautiful and silent.

Witches, discussed in the final chapter, serve as the best example of the book’s thesis – probably because witches have always represented women who would not be subordinated. The novels she discusses in this section also really sparked my interest (as did the werewolf short story “Boobs”, by Suzy McKee Charnas, which sounds hilarious). Pulliam delves here into the complicated concepts of “received knowing”, subjectivism and constructivism – borrowed from Mary Belenky and others. She writes, “While developing a more sophisticated orientation towards authority is a necessary step in the maturation process, women have more difficulty arriving at this phase then do men because [this] emerging constructivist perspective is particularly threatening to the stability of traditional gender roles, which uphold patriarchal order”.

There was one assertion that I found problematic: while discussing “The Craft”, Pulliam gives reasons for why each of the girls in the group of witches are outside of what is considered normally feminine, but those same characteristics would also cause teenaged boys to be outcasts in the film’s environment (a mostly white, prep school). As in “Blood Moon”, you could argue that these characteristics are worse to deal with as females, but it’s less convincing in this case.

Over all, Pulliam’s main thesis is convincing though: If young girls are exposed to and learn from non-conforming, “monstrous” female characters – even in stories that might end badly – perhaps they stand a better chance at resisting traditional restraints. As an ending note, I found this statement very funny, and certainly true: “in the conventional romance narrative, the heroine must successfully reinterpret the hero’s surliness as evidence of his affection rather than behavior that should drive her away”.

Damn you, Lord Byron.

Image via Amazon 

Simone Snaith

About Simone Snaith

Simone Snaith writes young adult and fantasy novels, and sings in the indie rock duo Turning Violet. A fan of scifi, fantasy, the supernatural and most things from the '80s, she enjoys reviewing music, books and movies. You can read about her own books at simonesnaith.com.
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